Divine Dvořák; Scintillating Shostakovich

Friday evening my wife and I went to a New York Philharmonic concert featuring guest conductor Andrey Boreyko. On the program were Felix Mendlessohn’s Overture to Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde (“Son and Stranger”), a sprightly piece that got things going nicely, followed by Dmitri Shostakovitch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 99, with soloist Frank Peter Zimmerman. The concert concluded with Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor,  Op. 95, From the New World. I’ll discuss the last piece first, as it’s an old favorite of mine, as well as of many.

When I was nine years old, my parents bought the LP album Classical Music for People Who Hate Classical Music, an anthology of performances by the Boston Pops Orchestra, under Arthur Fiedler, of mostly familiar, mostly (in that early edition) nineteenth century romantic pieces that were accessible (or, as a rock critic might put it, “hooky”) to people unfamiliar with, and perhaps inclined to dislike, the classical canon. (The collection, greatly expanded to include more kinds of music performed by many orchestras and artists, is still available as a four CD set.) One of the cuts on the LP was the second movement, Largo, from Dvořák’s New World symphony. You can hear it, performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra directed by Carlo Maria Giulini, by playing the clip above.

As I recall, the notes to the mid 1950s vintage LP said Dvořák got the principal theme for the Largo movement from a “Negro spiritual” with the title “Goin’ Home.” As I’ve discussed before here, classical composers frequently borrow tunes from other sources, including folk music and the work of other composers (“Variations on…” is a title frequently seen in classical music) just as pop tunesmiths sometimes mine the classical canon. This is mostly, but as George Harrison could have told you not always, considered Kosher, at least so long as the inspiring music isn’t subject to copyright. In any event, notes by James M. Keller in the Playbill for the concert correct the mistaken notion that Dvořák used a folk tune here. The tune was original to Dvořák, and acquired the title “Goin’ Home” some thirty years after the symphony was written, when Dvořák’s pupil and later teaching assistant William Arms Fisher wrote “dialect” lyrics for it that begin, “Goin’ home, goin’ home/ I’m a-goin’ home.”

Keller also observes that the composer’s notes accompanying the original score for the symphony, which were used when it was given its world premiere by the New York Philharmonic in 1893, had been kept in the Philharmonic’s archives. After the premiere, performances relied on a score published by the Berlin music house Simrock that lacked these notes and may have differed from the original score in other respects, although the Simrock score had the composer’s blessing. In 1989, at the request of another music publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel, the Philharmonic’s librarians produced the notes, along with the original score, and these became the basis for the
Breitkopf & Härtel edition that the Philharmonic performed last night.

I don’t know if it was in part because I’d never heard this version of New World before, and it was certainly in large part because of the skill of the instrumentalists and conductor, but this was easily the best performance of New World I’d heard, live or recorded. This is the kind of familiar work that can become formulaic and languid, but the Philharmonic’s rendition was crisp and energetic. Even the Largo, while keeping all its melancholy plaintiveness, seemed fresh. One thing that struck me was how “American” this music by an emigre from Central Europe seems; not only the Largo but, for example, the principal theme of the first movement, Adagio–allegro molto, in which I thought I could hear hints, though I doubt it was a conscious appropriation on Dvořák’s part, of Stephen Foster’s “Oh, Susannah!” In the tumultuous final movement, Allegro con fuoco, I sensed an influx of Slavic soul; on the way out I said to my wife that it seemed to me like John Philip Souza filtered through Modest Mussorgsky. I then had to explain that I didn’t mean it in a bad way.

Dmitri Shostakovich, considered by some to be the greatest composer of the past century, wrote his first violin concerto in 1947-48 and dedicated it to David Oistrakh, considered by some to be the greatest violinist of that century. It  may be one of the most challenging works ever written for the solo violinist.  According to Keller’s notes, Oistrakh “asked Shostakovich to show mercy.”

Dmitri Dmitriyevich, please consider letting the orchestra take over the first eight bars in the finale so as to give me a break, then at least I can wipe the sweat off my brow.

Shostakovich readily assented to Oistrakh’s plea. However, the concerto wasn’t performed until 1955, two years after Stalin’s death. Keller notes that the great cellist Mstislav Rostrapovich blamed the delay of its release on Oistrakh, implying that he was daunted by the work’s difficulty. But Keller argues that the delay was occasioned by Soviet politics.  Like many other artists, Shostakovich fell in and out of favor during the Stalin years, depending on the dictator’s whims. In 1945, following the defeat of the Nazis, Stalin wanted nothing but art that expressed unreserved triumphalism.  Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, published that year, was judged lacking in patriotic fervor, and therefore considered “decadent.” As a consequence, Shostakovich lost his teaching position at the Leningrad Conservatory and became, in Keller’s words, “indelibly traumatized and paranoid.” This may have caused his reluctance to release a work that might, like his Ninth, be characterized as containing “formalist perversions and antidemocratic tendencies…alien to the Soviet people and its artistic tastes.”

The video above is the best I could find of the concerto’s spectacular final movement. The soloist is the Russian violinist Vadim Repin, with the Orchestre de Paris conducted by Paavo Järvi. There’s also a black-and-white, somewhat grainy video of Oistrakh, who died in 1974, doing the cadenza here. These are both magnificent performances; Zimmerman’s on Friday evening was similarly awesome.


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About Claude Scales

I'm a Mets fan. Consequently, I'm imbued by what Miguel de Unamuno calls "the tragic sense of life".

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